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Service Learning in Action Across the Grades


No matter what grade level or subject you teach, service-learning projects can add a new dimension to your curriculum. This week, Education World offers examples of three excellent service-learning projects -- one each at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Each project is an example of true service learning. Included: Individual projects that involve students in creating Web pages for nonprofits, link the generations, and introduce students to the inner workings of community government.

Community Service Graphic "My Brother's Keeper has made me realize how fortunate my family is, and it has taught me to appreciate them more, and because I have been blessed, I must pass on the blessing to someone else." -- Ashley A. (Class of '01)

"Most students have fears and repulsions toward elderly people, because of the misconception of society's attitude towards them. Magic Me clears up those misconceptions by instilling different thoughts into the hearts of our youth!" -- Kerra T. (Class of '01)

"Sometimes getting what you want means going that extra mile." -- Shannon B. (Class of '00)

Those are just a few of the comments made by tenth graders at Maryland's Baltimore City College about the Web pages they created to fulfill the requirements for the school's introduction to technology course and to meet the service learning graduation requirements mandated for all Maryland high school students.

According to Liz Dunbar, teacher, Webmaster, and academic coordinator of technology at the humanities magnet high school, "At Baltimore City College, as at every other [Maryland] high school, students must earn service-learning hours to graduate. To support this, at every level we infuse a few hours worth of service-learning projects into our courses. In my intro to technology course, required for tenth graders, [students] learned to make basic Web pages using straight HTML. Since Web pages have to have content, we required the students to create a small site for either a community nonprofit organization or for a school organization.

"The students chose their own organizations and got information from the organizations for their pages," Dunbar told Education World. "They were usually organizations the student was involved with in his or her neighborhood. We then published the pages on our school's server. Students were expected to maintain their pages until they graduated."

The pages represented a variety of organizations and a range of interests. Some reflected a student's experience with a specific organization, such as My Brother's Keeper, an organization providing food and clothing for the homeless; Magic Me, a volunteer group in which the teenagers worked with elderly neighbors; and the Canton Police Athletic League, a system of youth recreation centers. Some of the students' pages were informational, such as Dealing With Depression, Helping the Homeless, and Teens and Work. Some, such as STD Clinic and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, were a little of both!

At Baltimore City College, a Maryland Blue Ribbon School of Excellence, the Web page requirement had a number of positive outcomes -- personal, societal, and academic.

"This was a popular project with the students because they saw that it was real and that it provided a significant service to the community," said Dunbar. "Besides, making Web pages is just plain fun! There were lots of those wonderful ooh!'s when some new little piece of code worked the first time -- and again when they checked out their site from outside the school for the first time and realized that it really was out there on the real Internet.

"The project also let them look in depth at something outside their own adolescent world, which broadened their horizons," added Dunbar. "And, if you remember your first ventures into straight HTML, you'll recognize that it also made them pay attention to detail and get very good at figuring out what was wrong and then figuring out a way to fix it. In this project, students practiced putting critical-thinking and problem-solving skills to work on something real."

Baltimore City College, the second oldest public high school in the nation, draws its students from 50 Baltimore area communities. About 94 percent of the students -- 95 percent of whom are African Americans -- continue their education after high school. The service-learning projects they participate in at City College benefit the community and give students the opportunity to practice their research and writing skills, add to their career or college resumes, and learn technology skills that will serve them well in the years after high school.

As Eric P. (class of '01) pointed out on his school page, which featured some City College teachers, "The Webmaster [is] Ms. E. Dunbar, to whom we owe much appreciation for her efforts in inclining students (very patiently) to this increasing computer age."


Generations Can Connect, a different kind of technology-based service-learning project, was piloted at the Banded Peak School in Bragg Creek, Alberta, Canada. According to William Belsey, the program's director, Generations Can Connect has three components.

  • In one part, seniors bring in memorabilia and work with their student partners to capture related memories, pictures, and stories on an Internet Web site.
  • In the second part, students and seniors together learn ways of using the Internet, such as banking, finding health information, sending and receiving e-mail, and researching genealogy.
  • Third, an outreach program provides seniors with access to Web-TV.
The goals of the program are to provide opportunities for shared experiences between Canada's seniors and youths, to encourage senior citizens to use the Internet, and to provide both seniors and students with greater technology-based skills.

Students at Banded Peak School engaged in a number of curriculum-based activities to prepare for their participation in the program. Those activities included

  • the creation of A Primer for Working With Seniors,
  • a survey of seniors about their attitudes toward and their uses of technology,
  • establishment of e-mail accounts so that seniors and students could maintain online contact between personal visits,
  • research into appropriate online and multimedia resources to meet seniors' needs,
  • the development of a Web site that allowed seniors and students to share their experiences with others.
During the program, the seniors had the opportunity to learn technology skills and to help teach students about the world they live in. Gordon Berry, one of the senior participants said, "I like the idea of playing a role in helping kids learn, since they are the future of the country." Another senior, Pearl Lammie, uses her newly acquired technology skills and e-mail access to keep in touch with her children, living in widely scattered areas of the United States and Canada.

The benefits to the students were also more than academic. "The technologies involved are less important than the connections they've helped the participants make," said Belsey. "At the beginning of the program, both the seniors and the teens were uneasy about working together, mostly because of stereotypes they carried about the other generation. The project has broken through that by centering on the shared learning that takes place."

That is what Travis and Bryce learned about senior David G. Langford, for example.

"One of the things I remember David saying is that he was not totally computer illiterate," one of the boys wrote on the Web page. "Most of the time we had to help him with the mouse because he kept hitting the wrong button. We figured he was used to Macintoshes because they have only one button on their mouse."

"One of the things he liked best was the game we played together called Rainbow Six," the boys added. "He said that he thought the graphics looked almost lifelike. Online banking was one of the things that Mr. Langford was interested in. He figured out how to do it quite quickly. One of the things he liked best was the way that the banking was so easy to use. He worked with it like a wiz."

The students also met Flora MacDonald and Don Harron, the co-chairs of the Canada Coordinating Committee for the United Nations International Year of the Older Person (IYOP).

"Ms. MacDonald shared with us the message that most Canadian seniors are living very active and full lives," the students said. "We learned that Ms. MacDonald herself speed-skates from her home to her office every day along Ottawa's Rideau Canal. She has recently returned from world travels, which saw her climbing partway up Mount Everest and later helping the people of Central America who were ravaged by Hurricane Mitch!

"Mr. Harron," the students wrote, "still regularly writes and performs his unique humor to audiences across the country. Indeed, he told us that some people think of seniors as the 'telly-tubby' generation. 'They think that we just sit around watching the telly and get tubby!'"

As William Belsey pointed out, "These are real, engaged learning experiences that are helping to build community, not merely coding HTML."


Students at Iowa's Red Oak Community Middle School completed a two-year service-learning project in which they raised $27,000 to build a community skateboard/in-line skating park. The 45 students who participated in the project were all members of the school's elective service-learning program. The students chose their project after surveying other students at the school to determine areas of concern. According to teacher Gayle Allensworth, the students then "wrote grants, developed a budget, formulated fund-raising plans, spoke to civic organizations, appeared on local radio and TV shows, researched liability laws, and studied park design."

Then they raised the money to build it!

This project, Allensworth added, "had multiple connections to the curriculum, including persuasive writing, legislation, figuring area for park design, accepting responsibility, and so on."

According to Allensworth, "The only negative we experienced was the challenge of what happens in education when you 'step out of the box.' Many people, whether directly involved in education or not, are comfortable with the traditional delivery system. Service learning does not easily or effectively fit in such a system."

The students, however, apparently weren't concerned with the negatives.

Harvey Birky, Red Oak's principal, shared with Education World some of their comments about the project. This is some of what the students said:

  • "In our service-learning class, we combine many skills into one class."
  • "We have worked with the city council, the park board, the school board, and the news media. The skill of public speaking is something we will use for the rest of our lives."
  • "We have also had to learn a lot about insurance and liability. That almost ended our plans."
  • "We have done a lot of research about our project. A lot of it was done on the Internet. We also are learning a lot about construction and what it takes to build something. Now we see why we need to learn so much math."
  • "We do a lot of our work in groups. We have learned to work together -- sometimes with people we don't know or like very well."
  • "We are learning a lot of different things in this class. More than if we were in just one class."
"As both a teacher and a community member, I feel very strongly that the benefits of service learning far outweigh the challenges," added Allensworth. "This is the missing link to the ever-present 'Why are we learning this?' question."

Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Updated 04/06/2009